NASCAR's Long Drive for Diversity

Can one of the least diverse sports in the world bring in both non-white drivers and fans? NASCAR's future depends on the answer.

Mar 24 2015, 2:05pm

When you think about NASCAR, "diversity" isn't the first word that comes to mind, rightly so. NASCAR's viewership and competitors are overwhelmingly white and Southern. This is a sport that has only had seven African-Americans ever drive at the top level, and currently has none. This is a sport whose fans have been known to sport racist shirts, boo Michelle Obama, and become outraged when the Confederate flag is banned.

The once-Confederate South isn't just a part of the history of the sport—it's a part of the culture.

Slowly but surely, however, that's starting to change. Look closely, and you'll notice that the top two series in NASCAR, Sprint Cup and XFinity, are beginning to look a little bit different.

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Right now there's Danica Patrick, the first woman to get a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup Series. There's Kyle Larson, the Japanese-American who became NASCAR's first Asian-American Rookie of the Year driver last year. There's Aric Almirola, who last year became the first Cuban-American to win a Sprint Cup race and make the Chase (NASCAR's playoffs).

In the XFinity Series, there's Darrell Wallace Jr., who in 2013 became the first African-American driver to win a NASCAR national series race in nearly 50 years; and Daniel Suarez, the first driver of Latino descent to get a full-time ride in the series.

Darrell Wallace Jr. after winning the Ford Econoboost 200. Image via Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It might not sound like much, but for NASCAR, it's a step in the right direction. And it's not coincidental. Behind most of these stories lies NASCAR's Drive for Diversity, an 11-year-old program that has recently found its way after a tumultuous start. A program that dovetailed with the efforts of Hall of Fame former National Football League player Reggie White.

In the early 2000s, after finishing his playing career with a one-year stint for the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, White turned his attention towards providing opportunities for minority drivers in racing.

"Throughout his entire career, he'd always tried to help people and have cultural impact," said Max Siegel, the current owner of Rev Racing. White knew this was something he couldn't do alone, so he turned to Siegel for help.

"He was very charismatic and infectious. He convinced me that there were opportunities for women and minorities in NASCAR, when I believe at the time not many people were focussed on it," Siegel said. White's passion for the cause drew Siegel in. (Of course, it probably helped that they were close friends—as a minister, White had married Siegel and his wife.)

White also got help from Joe Gibbs, who he knew from his NFL days. Together, they formed a diversity program at Joe Gibbs Racing that was launched in 2003, and White and Siegel began talking about starting their own racing team to support minority drivers. Unfortunately, White passed away in 2004, before the program could really become sustainable. (Almirola was one of the participants, and the only driver from the program to go on to have success on the national level.)

Concurrently, NASCAR launched Drive for Diversity in 2004, a program for women and minority drivers that had reportedly been conceived in the 1990s.

Though White wasn't around to see it, his contributions to NASCAR diversity lived on through Siegel. With his new connections to the community, Siegel went on to become the President of Global Operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc., making him the first African-American executive in NASCAR history.

Max Siegel and Dale Earnhardt Jr., we trust you can figure out who's who. Image via Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

"I faced some adversity and some resistance," Siegel said. "But it really is no different than what you face in all walks of life." When Siegel did run into trouble, the unwavering support of Earnhardt siblings Kelly, Theresa and Dale Jr. made a big difference. "I believe that if there was anyone who was skeptical, at least they were able to give me a chance based on the Earnhardt's support of me coming to the sport."

While Siegel worked with the Earnhardt corporation, the Drive for Diversity program stalled. There were complaints of mismanaged funds, broken promises, and overall corruption, none louder than the ones coming from Joe Henderson Jr., the father of Joe Henderson III, an African American driver in the first two Drive for Diversity classes in 2004 and 2005.

"It's a sham," Henderson Jr. told New York Times reporters in 2006. "The program is not designed to be successful because, No. 1, it's not properly funded. They claim that it's a pipeline. Well, nobody came out the pipe."

Two years later, the Drive for Diversity program still had no success stories. In an effort to reboot the program, NASCAR hired Siegel to manage it.

Siegel saw the problems right away. NASCAR had the Drive for Diversity drivers spread across the country on different teams, merely handing out stipends that were supposed to be used to fund 18 races for the driver. This led to a complete lack of accountability in the program—it was hard to oversee exactly how each team owner was spending its money, and since every driver was given different equipment and different levels of support, it was hard to measure success.

"After the first year, I made the commitment to invest a significant amount of my own personal money and then went out to secure additional sponsors, like the U.S. Army," he said.

Taking matters into his own hands, Siegel saw the opportunity to resurrect a dream he had shared with White. He used his life savings to start Rev Racing, a racing team that fields drivers in the regional level of NASCAR. He partnered with NASCAR so that Rev Racing could become a home the Drive for Diversity drivers.

In addition to forming a new team, he decided to bring all the drivers together for an academy-style training. He wanted people in the program who were committed enough to move to Charlotte, train in the gym, and go to the shop on a regular basis. As a part of the team, the drivers would receive sports psychology coaching, on-track driver coaching, and full professional training.

In other words, Siegel created a full-blown development program.

"It was financial, structural—it was a whole paradigm shift." Siegel said of his first few years with Drive for Diversity.

The overhaul led to almost instantaneous results. One of the first drivers that Siegel recruited was Wallace, who won Rookie of the Year in 2010 for his performances in the K&N Pro Series, and by the end 2011 had graduated from the program to drive in NASCAR's national series. He is considered one of the sport's most promising young stars.

The success stories didn't stop there. In 2012, Larson joined the program, and in 2013, Suarez came to Rev Racing.

Daniel Suarez in the No. 18 car racing in the NASCAR Xfinity series. Image via Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

"We stayed focused, and I think when people started to see [our recent successes], we began to get institutional credibility in the racing community," Siegel said.

"It's literally been seven years of grinding."

However, not everyone is completely thrilled to see the recent progress being made by Drive for Diversity.

"I haven't followed [the program] lately, more for bitter reasons," said Brianne Cronrath, a member of the 2005 and 2006 Drive for Diversity classes.

Cronrath started racing when she was four years old and saw her father on the track. "Ever since I saw my first race car, that's what I wanted to do," she said.

Cronrath, who is now married and the mother of a six-month old, was thrilled when she was accepted into the 2005 Drive for Diversity class. However, her excitement was quickly dampened when the realities of the program hit her.

After the combine she was placed with a team, but after questioning the team owner in an interview about how they were going to improve the results from the previous year, she was immediately dropped.

"It went from the high-of-highs, and then before the season even began it was done," Cronrath said.

In the middle of the season, another team's Drive for Diversity driver departed, so Cronrath was able to take over that ride. But by the time she got there, the money had been so poorly mismanaged that there wasn't any remaining for the rest of the season.

The following year she was a part of the program again, and experienced similar setbacks when her team owner threw her into multiple races per night—technically the owner was fulfilling his contract by putting her in 18 races, but the money wasn't going to new tires for each race and she was certainly not being given the time to develop, never mind race a full season.

Since she had lost her ride the previous year when she questioned an owner, Cronrath was scared to speak up to the team.

"It appears like you're getting this great shot, but behind closed doors it wasn't what it seemed," she said.

Cronrath continued racing in regional series on and off for a few years, but her career as an elementary school teacher as well as her family eventually took precedence.

Joe Henderson III, who was one of the most promoted and promising members of Drive for Diversity when the program first launched, experienced similar problems with money mismanagement and poor equipment. However, he felt like his NASCAR career really got derailed when his father spoke to reporters about the problems with the program.

"It was what needed to be done to help with the program, but he said some things that he wasn't supposed to say," Henderson said. "It was bad for me and my reputation, because after that I couldn't get anyone's attention about anything."

Ultimately, both Cronrath and Henderson accept responsibility for their careers not going as planned—racing isn't easy for anyone to break into, even in the best of circumstances—and both are still trying to secure sponsorship to revamp their own careers.

"At this point we just want to get out on the race track," Cronrath said. "I want to show my kid that you don't just give up on your dreams because things didn't turn out how you hoped they did."

Both also believe Drive for Diversity is now on the right track, though that doesn't make it any less frustrating to have a been a part of the program's protracted learning curve.

"I was just the first person, and what usually happens on the first attempt? It fails," Henderson said. "I'm not frustrated, it's still upon me to find a sponsor and team owner. I can't be mad because other kids are living in a different time, it's just how it is."

Unsurprisingly, more recent participants of the program have had a completely different experience.

Darrell Wallace Jr. celebrates winning the Kroger 200. Image via Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Daniel Suarez is a 23-year-old Mexican driver who spent two years in the program before getting a full-time ride in the XFinity Series with Joe Gibbs Racing this year.

Suarez got into racing relatively late, when a friend invited him to the track when he was 11 years old. His family had no connections to the racing word, and he only saw it as a hobby until he was 17 years old and opportunities in Europe and the United States presented themselves. He didn't speak much English and had never been far away from home, but he took the leap anyways.

After spending a couple of years in the regional NASCAR series, Suarez was struggling to make a leap to the next level. That's when he decided to fill out an application for Drive for Diversity.

"In 2012, I was very close to just going back to my country," Suarez said. "Without this program I might not be here."

Still, you can't change a culture overnight. However, NASCAR insists that their commitment to diversity is genuine and never-ending.

For a sport that has seen waning audiences throughout the years, figuring out how to develop more diverse drivers—and therefore hopefully attract a more diverse audience—might be the only way forward.

"It's not just the right thing to do—it's also common sense in business," Jim Cassidy, the senior vice president of racing operations at NASCAR, said.

"We're a sport that wants to continue to grow. We know that we don't have as broad of an audience as we'd like to have."

Cassidy has been involved with Drive for Diversity in various roles since it began. He's been at the combines, reviewed applications, and helped structure the program. He's also been involved in NASCAR's diversity initiatives that go beyond the drivers.

The Drive for Diversity program also has a combine and development program for pit-crew members that all but assures employment in one of NASCAR's three national series upon graduation. In February, Kevin Richardson, a former football player for Appalachian State and a graduate of the diversity pit-crew program, won the XFinity Series race at Daytona as an over-the-wall crew member for Ryan Reed. Last year, Rafael Diaz, a tire changer for Carl Edwards, became the first graduate of the diversity pit-crew program to win a race at the Sprint Cup level.

There's also an Opinion Leader program that brings a diverse group of associations and professionals to the track to introduce them to the sport, and a Diversity Internship program that NASCAR is in the process of expanding.

"It's not just the crew or the drivers," Cassidy said, referring to NASCAR's diversity initiatives. "It's in everything we do."

Diversifying NASCAR is undoubtedly a process that needed to start sooner, and one that would have benefitted from more structure early on so that there weren't so many disgruntled and discarded prospects along the way. It's a process that will continue to be scrutinized publically, especially the driver's program; there are many who think that more money should be put into the program and that there should be more assistance for the drivers as they attempt to transfer from regional to national series.

However, progress is progress. And, considering the amount of progress that has been made since Max Siegel and Rev Racing came into the picture, it's a process that deserves a bit more patience.

"It's been a relatively short journey, but a very incredible journey," Cassidy said. "From a numbers standpoint, are we happy with what we see today? Absolutely. Are we complacent? No.

"I would say that with diversity there's no finish line."